Bobby Labonte shook the huge bottle, then sent champagne spraying on his car, his crew, his wife and the championship trophy he had just won.
In seconds, the champagne was gone. The smile on Labonte’s face lasted a lot longer.
Labonte clinched his first Winston Cup Series title with a fourth-place finish Sunday in the Pennzoil 400. He took a victory lap with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart, who won the race for the second straight year.
“Our group is a quiet group, but that’s as good a celebration as I’ve seen,” said Gibbs, who coached the Washington Redskins to the 1983, 1988 and 1992 Super Bowl titles.
Because Labonte led two laps, he needed only a sixth-place finish in the next-to-last race of the year to capture the title, which was worth $3 million.
“I was hoping it was going to happen, but you never know until it’s over,” the Texan said. “We had a great year, a great run. It’s pretty great to beat the guys we beat. It’s just awesome.”
Someone reminded Labonte that Dale Jarrett shed tears when he clinched the Winston Cup championship at Homestead last year.
“I ain’t crying,” Labonte said. “Did you see that check?”
Stewart Again Wins Race, Not Cup
He started third and spent most of the day running fourth to eighth, often more than half a lap behind Stewart. The steady performance was typical of Labonte, who earned his 18th top-five finish this year.
For the second year in a row, Stewart won the race but shared the applause. Last year it was with Jarrett; this time it was with a teammate.
“It’s a great day for Joe Gibbs Racing,” said Stewart, who led 166 of the 267 laps. “For Bobby to win the championship, I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Gibbs was doubly proud about the way the race turned out.
“I held my breath,” he said. “I didn’t know you could do that for 30 laps.”
Earnhardt Finishes 20th
Terry Labonte was the Winston Cup champion in 1984 and 1996. He and Bobby, an eight-year veteran of the circuit, are the first brothers to win titles.
“Just watching him sure helped a lot,” Bobby Labonte said. With a laugh he added, “I’m still one behind.”
Labonte’s closest pursuer in this year’s points standings, Dale Earnhardt, started 37th in the 43-car field Sunday and finished 20th.
Jeremy Mayfield took second, 4.5 seconds behind Stewart, and Mark Martin was third. Pole-sitter Steve Park kept the lead for only nine laps and finished eighth.
Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip struggled with handling problems, completed only 94 laps and finished 36th in the next-to-last race of his career.
Two Wrecks on Hot Day
On a warm, sunny day, Stewart became woozy during the second half of the race. His crew dumped a bag of ice down his suit on each of his final two pit stops.
“I’ve never dealt with heat very well, and I was feeling sick,” Stewart said. “You probably pay a $1.50 for a bag of ice, and that probably won us the race. I wouldn’t have made it, and that cooled me off.”
Homestead’s 1½-mile, nearly flat oval makes passing difficult, and drivers spent most of the race strung out around the track, with little side-by-side racing.
There were two wrecks, the most serious occurring when Earnhardt tapped Ward Burton’s Pontiac in the rear bumper to start a crash that involved four other cars.
The initial collision sent Burton into the wall on the back straightaway, and he was then hit by Geoffrey Bodine. Cars driven by Stacy Compton, Mike Bliss and Robert Pressley were also damaged, while Earnhardt kept running.
“Some of it was my fault,” Burton said. “And probably some of it was Dale’s fault.”
Ricky Rudd, seeking his first victory in two years, twice took the lead coming out of the pits. Each time Stewart overtook Rudd, moving into first for the final time on the 219th lap.
When the race ended, Labonte pulled his Pontiac alongside Stewart’s and motioned that they should share a victory lap.
“I thought he was going to knock the door off my car, he was so happy,” Stewart said. “To share that moment with Bobby, that’s a moment I’ll never forget the rest of my life.”